Thursday, January 1, 2015

On Meta Narrative and Jelly

I've just read Eleanor Catton's Booker-winning Luminaries.  I'm also reading a lot of Russian history. And poetry.  And writing poetry.  But that's a topic for another wombat.

The Luminaries wasn't very good.  I mean, it wasn't execrable, and I finished it.  But, given the hype, I was disappointed.

It's got a whole meta-structure, a vast and creaking meta-narrative.  To do with the zodiac.  And the signs of the zodiac.  All its major figures stand for one of the signs of the zodiac, and all the book's actions take place on certain 'charted' days.  So, at the start of each chapter, there's a star-chart showing you where each figure fits into the astrological...order.  For want of a better term.  So all the sub-chapters have headings like "Virgo in Mars" or "Moon in Scorpio" or "Peanut Butter in Jelly."  And it's all exceedingly tedious and forgettable.  Because, clearly (I think?) the author doesn't believe or find deep meaning in the zodiac.  It's all a bunch of arbitrary nonsense, a way of giving her a structure.  Which, in itself, is fine--we all need structure--but by foregrounding it like she does, she makes the reader feel like it should somehow matter, in its reading.  Which it doesn't.  And can't.  And doesn't.

What it made me think of was Ulysses.  Herman Wouk's Ulysses.  There, a meta-structure is also used, but there it works, or works, at least, insofar as any exoskeleton--an inherently inelegant and slightly repulsive structure--can.  For in Ulysses, Joyce imposes a mythic narrative, the central guiding narrative (or one of them) of Western Civilization.  Which narrative imports, to the seemingly mundane and humdrum lives of Stephen and Leopold and Peanut Butter and Jelly a larger resonance and import.  A sense of meaning in a grand continuum.  And there are many other ways that Ulysses is better, many many other ways... which, as I write, seems an exceedingly stupid comparison, and not useful, because no reviewer, sitting down to think upon a book thinks (or should): Is this better than Ulysses?  Because what the hell kind of criterion is that?

But anyway.  The book, Luminaries, I mean, wants to be a page-turning, pleasure-giving 'yarn' while at the same time gestures, tiresomely, towards wisdom and insight and profundity which it can't maintain.  So, for example, the character introductions and descriptions just go on and on and pretend to a kind of deep insight which they don't live up to.  And, basically, it made me tired.  Tired and indigent.  And tired.

I've read a lot of other things too.  But those are secrets.  Terrible ones.